What does the SCOTUS ruling on DNA mean?

The Supreme Court has ruled that American cops can collect DNA upon arrest, but can backlogged crime labs handle it?

June 3, 2013 was a historic day for police agencies across the country. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that law enforcement officers are not violating the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches by collecting DNA samples from suspects arrested for a “serious offense.”

“Taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court’s five-justice majority, according to this news article.

This ruling legitimizes a procedure already practiced by many law enforcement officers across the country. News outlets reported that 28 states and the federal government now take DNA swabs after arrests. 

On the Other Hand
However, this ruling has been met with opposition within the Supreme Court and beyond. The four dissenting justices argued that allowing DNA collection constituted a major change in police powers, with Justice Antonin Scalia noting that the limitation to “serious” crimes could be easily eroded.

Dr. Vincent Giordano, program director of the criminal justice program at American Public University, agreed saying the lack of definition for the types of crimes considered “serious” could be problematic for law enforcement agencies.

“Most of us would agree that rape and murder are ‘serious’ crimes, but possession of marijuana might be considered serious to you, but not serious to me,” he said. “The lack of definition can open Pandora’s box and agencies and states are left trying to argue what the Supreme Court meant.”

An Already Overtaxed System
Mark Bridgeman, a retired captain who served as a police officer for 26 years and is currently the President of the North Carolina Gang Investigators Association, has years of experience collecting and relying on DNA evidence. During his career, he worked many serial rape cases as a detective and then as a commander with a sexual assault task force. 

“DNA is a wonderful tool and it makes the world smaller for criminals, but we have to have the infrastructure behind it for it to be successful,” he said.

Currently in North Carolina, most agencies collect DNA after an individual is convicted. Now, with the Supreme Court’s ruling, more agencies may choose to collect DNA from those arrested, causing an influx of DNA samples that need to be processed by state and local crime labs. This would only worsen the already backlogged system experienced by many labs throughout the country, said Bridgeman.

It has been a priority within most states, as well as the federal government, to address the backlog in at DNA-processing labs. In 2011 and 2012, the National Institute of Justice’s DNA Backlog Reduction Program spent $163,054,391 to assist states and local governments in increasing their capacity to process more DNA samples. The application timeframe for the FY 2013 DNA Backlog Reduction Program ended on May 13, just 21 days before the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Other than an influx of DNA samples into crime labs, Bridgeman does not expect there to be many other impacts on law enforcement agencies. Only minimal training is needed to take an accurate DNA sample, and most agencies will have their intake officers conduct that process when deemed appropriate.

Overall, this Supreme Court ruling will help law enforcement officers solve more crimes. And, DNA analysis is only expected to get better with the development of ”Rapid DNA” technology, which allows testing to be completed within hours compared to weeks.

While the Supreme Court’s ruling is a positive step for law enforcement agencies, it is important to remember that it will take time and funding to ensure the proper infrastructure and procedures are in place so DNA analysis can continue to be an effective law enforcement tool.

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